NORMAN — Cheri Shepard had only been married a few months when she sat in Houston’s Astrodome on Oct. 30, 1988, watching her husband Derrick play for the Washington Redskins in a Sunday night football game.
Midway through the second quarter that night, Derrick Shepard fielded a kickoff and sustained a brutal blow from the Houston Oilers’ Eugene Seale that knocked Shepard unconscious.
“He was just lying there,” Cheri Shepard remembered. “He wasn’t moving.
“I kept thinking, ‘Is he paralyzed?’ There were no cell phones then, so I didn’t find out how he was doing until a lot later that night.”
Scary memories from that night are why Cheri isn’t wild about her son Sterling’s newest role on Oklahoma’s football team. The junior wideout and Heritage Hall product took over as the Sooners’ punt returner this fall.
“My mom tells me all the time she hates that I’m doing punt return,” Sterling Shepard said. Cheri found out that Sterling would return punts several months ago, and while she’s never been the type of parent to interfere, the whole thing has definitely made her uneasy.
Sterling returned punts and kicks in high school, but that never really bothered his mom. After all, facing the likes of Casady and Kingfisher isn’t the same as returning punts against Tennessee and Texas.
Cheri spent the days and weeks before Saturday’s season opener against Louisiana Tech praying for Sterling’s safety and asking everyone she knows to do the same.
After all, Sterling has already suffered one concussion since becoming a Sooner.
Last November in Waco, Texas, Shepard caught a pass coming across the middle, turned upfield and was met by Baylor defender K.J. Morton, whose high hit knocked Shepard out of the game.
Cheri rushed from the stands onto the sideline and stood nearby while doctors asked Shepard to repeat some numbers backward. His mom didn’t hear the “backward” part, and assumed he was in much worse shape than he was.
“I thought, ‘Oh my poor child!’” Cheri recalled. “I rushed over and yelled, ‘I love you Sterling!’
“He was mortified.”
Cheri can laugh about that moment now, but that doesn’t make the idea of another concussion any less frightening.
She said she was surprisingly calm the three times her son lined up to return punts against Louisiana Tech. Shepard only fielded two of them, averaging 17.5 yards per return.
He’d been eager to return punts since arriving on campus in 2012, but had to wait his turn behind veterans Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders.
“It was great,” Sterling said of returning punts Saturday. “Got some really good blocks. It’s exciting being back there again.
“Just got some of the first-game jitters out, and now I'm ready to roll.”
Still, when her son backs up deep Saturday morning the first time Tulsa lines up to punt, Cheri probably will have a few jitters.
Derrick Shepard played three more NFL seasons after sustaining the concussion that night in Houston, returning 57 more punts and 34 more kickoffs before retiring.
The former OU standout died of a heart attack at the age of 35 on Aug. 4, 1999. Fifteen years later, Sterling Shepard wears his dad’s Oklahoma jersey No. 3.
Against Louisiana Tech on Saturday, Sterling even passed his dad and now ranks 22nd on Oklahoma’s career receiving yards list.
And now, Sterling is also returning punts like his old man, even if it makes mom a little uncomfortable.
“She remembers seeing my dad get kinda clobbered back there, but I'm not worried about it,” Sterling said. “That's the name of the game. You're gonna get hit.”